The 26 February 2019 breach of Pakistani airspace by Indian warplanes has sparked the latest wave of tension between the two South Asian nuclear-armed neighbours, centering the long disputed region of Kashmir.
India’s airstrikes, New Delhi claimed, destroyed Pak-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant outfit camps and caused heavy human casualties. However, Pakistan denied the Indian claims regarding the deaths of around 300 people inside its territory.
The latest war-like state of affairs intensified the following day with Pakistan and India claiming to down each other’s jets. Pakistan also claimed it had captured an Indian air force pilot. The diffusion of tension ultimately began a few days later with the release of the Indian jet pilot by Pakistan.
The Kashmir dispute started in 1947 with the partition of the Indian sub-continent purely based on religion. Colonial British rulers conceded independence to India, eventually making way for Independent Hindu majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan. Even referenda were held in many provinces of British India where there had not been an overwhelming majority to help people decide to join either India or Pakistan.
During the time of the Indian partition, British India’s three provinces - Baluchistan, North-West Frontier and Sind joined the Dominion of Pakistan while three provinces-- Punjab, Bengal and Assam-- were cut into two pieces to join India and Pakistan. The remaining 11 provinces joined the Union of India.
However, the decision regarding the nearly 600 princely states was rather ambiguous. The British did not fully conquer or annex these native states, unlike the other 17 provinces. These states though remained under indirect rule of the British. The Indian Independence Act of 1947 gave each princely region the right to join either Pakistan or India or remain independent.
But things changed quickly after the partition of British India in 1947. By the end of 1949, all of the native states chose to join either India or Pakistan and the rest were conquered and annexed.
Kashmir, the princely state of British India that had a 75 per cent of Muslim population but the king was Hindu, has remained the apple of discord for over 70 years between India and Pakistan.
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir, initially believed that by delaying his decision he could maintain the independence of Kashmir, but, caught up in a train of events that included a revolution among his Muslim subjects along the western borders of the state and the intervention of Pashtun tribesmen, he signed an Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union in October 1947, inviting intervention both by Pakistan, which considered the state to be a natural extension of Pakistan, and by India, which intended to confirm the act of accession.
The developments in the Kashmir front led Indian and Pakistani forces to their first war over the former princely state in 1947-48. As India took the dispute to the United Nations, the global body in August, 1948 asked both the warring Pakistan and India for ceasefire and a "free and fair" plebiscite to allow the Kashmiri people to decide their future.
Initially, India was all for a referendum as it was quite confident of winning the plebiscite since Sheikh Abdullah, the Kashmir’s undisputed popular leader, sided with it. Pakistan, however, continued fighting until a ceasefire was reached on January 1, 1949 with 65 percent of the Kashmiri territory remaining under Indian control and the rest under Pakistani administration.
The row over the disputed Himalayan region forced the two next door otherwise impoverished neighbours to engage in two full-scale wars in 1947and 1965 and a limited scale war known as Kargil war in 1999 besides ballooning spending on military equipment and technologies over the past 70 plus years.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), in 2018 India allocated $58 billion, or 2.1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), to support its 1.4 million active troops while Pakistan spent $11billion, roughly 3.6 percent of its GDP, on its 653,800 troops the same year.
A fifth of India’s total population and a third of Pakistan’s live in extreme poverty: India has over 70 million people who live in extreme poverty, meaning they live on less than $1.90 a day, while its now cash-strapped rival Pakistan’s over 60 million people are extreme poor.
India and Pakistan could have spent all the money on their poor people, helping them come out of the abject poverty had there been no conflict over Kashmir.
War can never be the means of conflict resolution in the modern days: take the example of the split of Czechoslovakia, which was founded in 1918. The break-up as two independent nations, Czech Republic and Slovakia, in 1993 did not claim a single life: they divided their common assets on negotiation tables.
It is high time India and Pakistan changed their attitudes towards Kashmir that ‘consider’ the formerly native state as each other’s territory. The two warring rivals need to resolve their differences thorough negotiations. Pakistan needs to understand that incidents such as 14 February 2019 Pulwama suicide bombing that reportedly killed 40 para-military force members are not going to help at all while India needs to dig out why people from its ‘own territory’ are so ‘restive’, even resorting to suicide attacks.
India and Pakistan ought to respect the opinions of Kashmiri people. Let them express their preferences: it has been overdue. No one can justify the killings of over 70,000 people in the conflict running over 70 years.
It is time the Kashmiris in the India and Pakistan-administered territories should be given an opportunity to express their choice. Many observers believe the solution still lies in the UN decision taken over 70 years ago that speaks of holding a referendum.
The writer is the Executive Editor of The Independent.
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